Southern Man

October 3, 2017

When you start to talk about Tom Petty and how he fits into our cultural landscape, you’ve got to go back a bit — because Tom Petty has been around awhile, and because he is so easy to take for granted. Start reeling off the names of the American rock ‘n’ roll heroes — the real-deal guys, starting with Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley — and it may take you a while to get to the lanky Floridian with the corn-silk hair.
Because people like Tom Petty, they like the expansive jangle and grace of his singles. But they don’t necessarily consider him “an important artist.” He’s not Bruce Springsteen singing about the socioeconomic consequences inherent in the paradigm shift from industrial to service economies, and he’s not Bob Dylan muttering mad prayers. He works a vein of mainstream pop, singing mostly about girls.
So if you’re going to make a case for Petty and his Heartbreakers as the pre-eminent American rock ‘n’ roll band of our time, you’d better prepare your case carefully. The same is true if you’re going to suggest that maybe the Heartbreakers are the direct descendants of Creedence Clearwater Revival or simply the American equivalent of the Rolling Stones — i.e., if you don’t like T.P. you simply don’t like rock ‘n’ roll.
To understand and fully appreciate Tom Petty, you must understand that rock ‘n’ roll — as opposed to the corporatized “rock” — is essentially a Southern thing and always has been.
Whether it’s Jersey boy Springsteen affecting the beaten vowels of the sharecropper, sir, or Britishers Mick and Keef droppin’ their “g’s” or even Dylan — the boy from the North Country — trying to sound like Blind Willie McTell, the inflections of rock ‘n’ roll have always been Southern. Rock ‘n’ roll might belong to anyone who wants it bad enough.
But you have to acknowledge that it started here, below America’s belt — Elvis and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins and Ike Turner and Sam Phillips and Dewey Phillips and all those wild Burnett boys who started the grass fire that would consume the world. If rock ‘n’ roll is essentially Southern, there is also such a specific thing as Southern rock. It’s over now; it flashed across the empty skies of the 1970s and was gone.
It was beautiful to watch, but Southern rock was a shooting star, not a fixed planet.
It was provincial and reactionary, a stubborn regional sound with thuggish fans who didn’t for a minute buy into any of that hippie-dippy peace and love junk. It was a kind of “know-nothing” music, redneck rock that wrapped itself in the Stars ‘n’ Bars as well as Old Glory. It could be dumb music. Sometimes it celebrated getting drunk or getting stoned or getting into a fight or getting a gun. Sometimes it dealt in stereotypes, sometimes it encouraged mindless rowdyism as the answer to systematic exclusion from full economic participation in America. Sometimes, though, it was better than that.
Sometimes it offered up the concerns and attitudes of ordinary working-class folks as well as any form of pop expression. Sometimes — as when the clean lines of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts’ Gibson guitars snaked around each other, when brother Gregg’s bluesy voice began to ripen and roar — Southern rock could be majestic, lyrical and sweet and beyond interpretation. And while Southern rock is over — it ended violently, amid the torn rubber and twisted steel of various motorcycle and plane crashes — it isn’t dead.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were always a Southern band — not just a band from the South. When they first surfaced as a national act in 1976, it was easy to see the Heartbreakers as a “new wave” act, with their economical singles and emotional urgency. At the time, songs such as the Byrds-like “American Girl” and the Stones-ish “Breakdown” seemed more a reaction to the bloated, faceless corporate competence of bands like Journey and Styx than a continuation — and advancement — of the mainstream pop tradition. No wonder the Heartbreakers were booked with bands like the Ramones and Blondie. No wonder that high-school punk rockers were working out versions of “I Need to Know” and “Refugee.”
“It would have been real easy to say, `OK, we are new wave,’ and get the skinny ties,” Petty told writer Dave Marsh. “But it never looked like much of a challenge to me. It looked like a bigger challenge to work in the mainstream, to play to everybody. I never understood being so cool that nobody heard it.”
Beneath Petty’s most obvious influences — both his ringing Rickenbacker 12-string and his nasal upper register are ringers for the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn — lurk the bluesy grit and clean, muscular lines of the Allmans and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Listen to Patty and the Heartbreaker’s live covers of Charlie Rich’s rockabilly classic “Lonely Weekends” and Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” on the 1996 Playback compilation. There’s no question they inhabit this music. Petty goofs on Elvis(“Baby, Let’s Play House,” “Wooden Heart” from G.I. Blues), pays homage to Solomon Burke (“Cry to Me”).
But Petty’s Southerness never prevented him from incorporating other styles into his music. He was basically a rock ‘n’ roll fundamentalist who turns to the Byrds (and through them to their antecedents, Dylan and Nashville) for melodic elegance and to the Stones for power.
For more than 40 years, Petty and the Heartbreakers were amazingly consistent — both in commercial stature and artistic quality. There have been no obvious false steps and, even now, none of the early songs sound anachronistic. His name may not be the first that comes to mind when starting to talk about the bona fide, first-tier rock ‘n’ roll pantheon; perhaps it shouldn’t be too far down the list. Presley, Dylan, Springsteen, Berry … Petty? Petty has outdone most of his influences. His legacy is likely to outlast that of the Byrds, or the Allman Brothers, or Lynyrd Skynyrd. He was always there, grinning, his horsey face amused by fashion, always ready to play but never to give in.

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